Blue Mood

No one's home, but the door's wide open. You walk into a tiny living room furnished with two worn chairs. A stack of magazines spills from under an end table. There are dishes in the sink of the cramped kitchen. A couple of stray items of clothing litter the bedroom floor, and the bed is neatly made with decorative lace pillows. The owner must have run next door. The air has the familiar musty dampness of an old Houston house. In the quiet emptiness, you hear a faint ticking that comes from… everywhere. As you look around, you realize everything, from the bath towels to the doors, sprouts miniature clock hands, which chronologically jerk their way around an absent clock face. Time Piece is by Los Angeleno Lisa Schoyer, and it is a part of Project Row Houses' "Fourteenth Round of Artist Installations," curated by Bernard Brunon.

Each clock is linked to a statistic that is broken down into hours, minutes or seconds. The time increment is written on a clock hand, and the statistic is inscribed by hand on the nearby surface. In the kitchen, for example, a pair of hands tick away on a Life cereal box on which is written that worldwide four children die from hunger every 15 seconds, 75 percent of them under the age of five. A switch plate informs us that a black person was murdered every five hours in the United States in 1999.

The bathroom door reveals that in 1998 an American was diagnosed with AIDS every 12 minutes, and that one died from the disease every two hours. A bottle of hand lotion in the bathroom discloses that the Democratic Party raised $8.56 every second for the 2000 election, while a blue bottle of Noxzema tells us that the Republicans raised almost twice as much, $15 every second. A lamp shade informs us that in 1998 a couple got married every 15 seconds -- and divorced every 30 seconds. A lacy pillow on the bed announces that someone gets pregnant in the world every two seconds.

That millions of children die from hunger every year is a tragic statistic, but it's still a statistic -- a cold, abstract, almost empty bit of information. Learning that four children die every 15 seconds is somehow more immediate. How long does it take you to eat a bowl of Mikey's favorite breakfast food? How many children are dead by the time you finish? Schoyer's strategy of breaking statistics down into real segments of time, and physically inserting them into a convincingly simulated domestic environment is effective. A year can be an unwieldy length of time, but hours, minutes and seconds are much more conceivable. They are passing as you read this…

Schoyer involves viewers by asking them to write down on a square of paper how they spend their own time, and then to tack up the sheet somewhere in the house. Contributions include "I spend my time working at a job I do not enjoy. I spend my evenings with people I love." Another person spends his or her time "planning things," spending time planning time. Another viewer tragically reveals, "I spend all my time thinking about art." The installation provokes a contemplation of personal as well as human time.

Linking art and community is one of the cornerstones of Project Row Houses. Houstonian Melissa Noble's purple glitter Juke Joint installation seeks to celebrate the city's blues scene and venues like El Nedo, Etta's Lounge and C. Davis Bar-B-Q, as well as unsung heroes like Sherman Robertson, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Martha Turner, I.J. Gosey and Gloria Edwards. Once widespread, "juke joints" (usually called lounges or cafes because the Gullah word "juke" means "wicked" and "disorderly," and such establishments were often perceived as dens of iniquity) are becoming increasingly scarce as patrons age and their children's tastes run to hip-hop and pop. Houston's tendency toward slash-and-burn redevelopment may raze these places out of existence. As an outgrowth of Noble's installation, Project Row Houses is presenting a series, "Barbecue and the Blues," on Saturdays at Miss Anne's Playpen, a Third Ward venue at 3710 Dowling.

Students from PRH's after-school program worked with New York artist/landscape designer Paula Hayes to plant a "snack garden" with popcorn, peanuts and sunflowers. Hayes created a portable "Plantpack," a soft knapsacklike container with a living plant. Students took turns wearing the pack, watering and nurturing their plant. Hayes's installation Life…Graceful and Green is less successful; it presents brightly colored gestural drawings that incorporate text about life and gardening. It's pretty treacly. Ditto Hayes's artist statement in which she talks about her "ongoing process of creating an art practice which weds all my endeavors concerning love and commitment." She adds, "I am now moving toward another level of synthesis, which will include animal husbandry in the relationships I've been crafting." The mind boggles.

Working with older students, New Yorker Richard Humann had them read lyrics to classic blues songs, including ones by Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters and Ma Rainey. From the recordings, he created a CD that plays from speakers in his installation Possessions for Judgment Day. The incongruity of children giving voice to adult pain changes these songs into stories meant to be memorized and passed on. The lyrics are affixed to white pedestals on top of which are acrylic resin bars that encase the letters to the words of each song -- scattered and frozen in a clear synthetic amber. The bars are created in the size and shape of U.S. government gold bars -- there are 12 in all here, a reference to the 12-bar structure of a blues tune -- which seems slightly less interesting than the idea of entombing the component parts of a song.

Californian Jane Jenny relied on kid help to stuff the cushions in her installation Cradle House. They were well rewarded for their efforts. The space is paved with a thick spongy floor that transforms the house into one giant bed. Small airborne children and several large airborne adults filled the room at the show's opening. The squares of foam have been upholstered with cast-off and thrift-store clothing -- socks, hand towels, tank tops, doilies, bedspreads, shirts, sheets. The result is a pleasing patchwork of colors and materials that carry the aura of past lives, like the scavenged fabric of a quilt.

The part of Jenny's installation that doesn't work is the little hanging laminated photographs of the cushions that provide information on where each item was purchased. They bear messages like "old tie bought at thrift store (Sun City, CA) sewn on vintage tablecloth bought at Retarded Citizens' Thrift (Oxnard, CA)." Another tag reveals fabric was taken from her children's old bunk bed blanket. The artist's manner of material acquisition isn't obsessive enough or interesting enough to warrant the additional detail. We don't share the memories of her Oxnard trip.

Scoring low on the community involvement front is New Yorker Paul Miller, a.k.a. his "constructed persona" DJ Spooky. Miller is a conceptual artist, writer and a popular musician with a hectic touring schedule. His installation applied a series of diagonal blue stripes over the contours of the row house interior. While optically interesting, the installation is still awaiting Miller's audio component. Apparently Miller also had trouble leaving behind his music star persona. According to several sources, the artist found the Allen Park Inn unacceptable while here for the opening. His irate manager demanded DJ Spooky be relocated to the Four Seasons. Reality check, please. This is a community-based nonprofit organization, not Pace Concerts.

Don't overlook PRH's office, where Errol Bailey's intricately and elaborately patterned work hangs in the Collector's Club Gallery. Bailey began drawing while incarcerated and uses his art to inspire and sustain himself on the outside. His drawings have a compelling, obsessive, too-much-tim-on-your-hands feeling. It's strong work that stands on its own, with or without Bailey's biographical information.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer